US Military: Colt M1911 Pistol

M1911A1 Pistol
M1911A1 Pistol. Photograph Available Under GNU Free Documentation License

The M1911 pistol was the standard sidearm of the US Armed Forces from 1911 until 1986. Developed by John Browning, the M1911 fires a .45 cal. cartridge and uses a single-action, semi-automatic, recoil-operated action. The M1911 first saw service during World War I and was improved for use in World War II as well as the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Derivative variants of the M1911 remain in use with US Special Forces. The M1911 has proved popular with recreational shooters and is frequently used in competitions.


In the 1890s, the US Army began searching for an effective semi-automatic pistol to replace the revolvers that were then in service. This culminated in a series of tests in 1899-1900 in which examples from Mauser, Colt, and Steyr Mannlicher were examined. As a result of these tests, the US Army purchased 1,000 Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken (DWM) Luger pistols which fired a 7.56 mm cartridge.

While the mechanics of these pistols were satisfactory, the US Army (and other users) found that the 7.56 mm cartridge lacked sufficient stopping power in the field. A similar complaint was lodged by US troops battling the Philippine Insurrection. Equipped with M1892 Colt revolvers, they found that its .38 cal. round was insufficient to bring down a charging enemy, especially in the close confines of jungle warfare.

Head portrait of John Browning
John Browning. Public Domain

To temporarily rectify the situation, older .45 cal. M1873 Colt revolvers were sent to the Philippines. The heavier round quickly proved move effective. This along with the results of the 1904 Thompson-LeGarde tests led planners to conclude that a new pistol should, at minimum, fire a .45 cal. cartridge. Seeking a new .45 cal. design, the Chief of Ordnance, Brigadier General William Crozier, ordered a new series of tests. Colt, Bergmann, Webley, DWM, Savage Arms Company, Knoble, and White-Merril all submitted designs.

After preliminary testing, the models from Colt, DWM, and Savage were approved for the next round. While Colt and Savage submitted improved designs, DWM elected to withdraw from the competition. Between 1907 and 1911, extensive field testing took place using both the Savage and Colt designs. Constantly improved as the process moved forward, John Browning's Colt design ultimately won the competition.

Colt M1911

  • Cartridge: .45 ACP
  • Capacity: 7 round detachable box magazine
  • Muzzle Velocity: 835 ft./sec.
  • Weight: approx. 2.44 lbs.
  • Length: 8.25 in.
  • Barrel Length: 5.03 in.
  • Action: Short Recoil Operation

M1911 Design

The action of Browning's M1911 design is recoil operation. As combustion gases drive the bullet down the barrel, they also exert a reverse motion on the slide and barrel pushing them backwards. This motion ultimately leads to an extractor expelling the spent casing before a spring reverses the direction and loads a new round from the magazine. As part of the design process, the US Army directed that the new pistol possess both grip and manual safeties.

Early Use

Dubbed the Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911 by the US Army, the new pistol entered service in 1911. Assessing the M1911, the US Navy and Marine Corps accepted it for use two years later. The M1911 saw extensive use with American forces during World War I and performed well. As wartime needs exceeded Colt's production capabilities, an additional manufacturing line was established at the Springfield Armory.


In the wake of the conflict, the US Army began assessing the M1911's performance. This led to several minor modifications and the introduction of the M1911A1 in 1924. Among the changes to Browning's original design were a wider front site, shorter trigger, an extended grip safety spur, and a simplified design on the grips. Production of the M1911 accelerated during the 1930s as tensions around the globe heightened. As a result, the type was the principal sidearm of US forces in World War II.

American soldiers crossing a small pontoon bridge.
Led by their sergeant with a M1911 in hand, a .30-caliber machine gun team crosses a bridge during maneuvers in August 1941. National Archives and Records Administration

During the conflict, approximately 1.9 million M1911s were produced by several companies including Colt, Remington Rand, and Singer. The US Army obtained so many M1911s that it did not purchase new pistols for several years after the war. A highly successful design, the M1911 remained in use with US forces during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.


In the late 1970s, the US military came under increasing pressure from Congress to standardize its pistol designs and find a weapon that could utilize the NATO-standard 9mm Parabellum pistol cartridge. A variety of testing programs moved forward in the early 1980s which resulted in the selection of the Beretta 92S as the M1911's replacement. Despite this change, the M1911 saw use in the 1991 Gulf War with a variety of specialized units.

The M1911 has also remained popular with US Special Forces units which have carried variants during the Iraq War and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. As a result of their use of the weapon, the Army Marksman Unit began experimenting with improving the M1911 in 2004. Designated the M1911-A2 project, they produced several variants for Special Forces use.

Additionally, the US Marine Corps continued to utilize highly-modified M1911s in its Force Reconnaissance units. These were frequently hand-built, customized weapons constructed from existing M1911s. In 2012, a large order of M1911s was placed for Marine Expeditionary Forces (Special Operations Capable) use. This updated model was designated M45A1 "Close Quarters Battle Pistol." More recent reports have indicated that M1911 variants were withdrawn from frontline use in 2016.

Other Users

The M1911 has been produced under license in other countries and is currently in use with numerous militaries around the world. The weapon is also popular with sportsmen and competitive shooters. In addition, the M1911 and its derivatives are in use with law enforcement agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Hostage Rescue Team, numerous local S.W.A.T. units, and many local police forces.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "US Military: Colt M1911 Pistol." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 28). US Military: Colt M1911 Pistol. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "US Military: Colt M1911 Pistol." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 20, 2021).